I remember it was hot, hellishly hot, and the Beetle had that smell, a summer scent that would forever be associated with the back yard of the Gibson place. Where once stables had stood, now there was a rusty graveyard of cars. Fitting, really - one kind of ride was swapped for another. A prickly smell of dry coir from the seat and vapourised vinyl from the dashboard. The old VW logo in the centre of the steering wheel, silver fox and castle. Love that design, it’s a classic. We usually played there while the grown-ups had ‘tea’. What a joke. Tea doesn’t have rum in it. But it was our patch, that back yard, and it’s where I first saw a girl’s koek when I caught Malcolm lifting Elsie’s dress in the car. In her eyes I could see she was scared. That’s the way it was, though. We were just kids, exploring. Had they known, our parents would have tanned his ass for crossing the line. That line. Even at that age we knew about the way things were. Hell, I must have been six.
That same smell was always in the car when we went on trips to Jo’burg. Must’ve been the heat that brought it out. I remember the cosmos alongside the road once we crested the escarpment, and I remember mother’s insistence that cosmos was a sure sign that winter was on its way. In December. That was the comment that always set the tinderbox tension aflame. And off they would go… Jeez, the endless hours spent staring out the window as the world rolled by under us to the sound of that tit-for-tat tennis match. Elsie always came with us. She was like one of the family.
It was us that were motionless; it was the world that spun under. That smell, even now, thirty years later, takes me back every time. The smell of nostalgia.
I hate hospitals, but I had to tell her. Couldn’t keep it in, and we’d be leaving soon.
‘So we’re moving to London, Mom. Soon.’
‘Really? How soon?’ Mom could never hide her anxiety, that querulous tremolo gave her away every time.
‘Soon as we sort out the transfer of the flat and sell off the Beetle, hey babe?’
Kirsty was sweating bullets, could tell from across the room. She didn’t want to do this any more than I. Politely she nodded, but her eyes swivelled away from the figure in the bed as soon as they could. I, on the other hand, had to sit next to the bed holding Mom’s hand, while Malcolm was on honeymoon in Bali boasting about the size of his dick, no doubt. I mean, who in their right mind names their tackle? And what kind of name is Viper?
‘Have you told your brother? He’ll be terribly upset. You know he’s opposed to your moving…’ she wheezed, her breath short. Eyes rheumy, hands withered, skin like parchment. Not the mother I knew. Not the best time to tell her either, but then when would be? “Opposed to your moving”? So he can continue to ignore his obligations at home, leave the mess to be cleaned up by ‘Two-bob’? His words.
I could picture him, strutting around some Balinese resort, hibiscus flowers in the background bobbing in the breeze, smug grin on his face, vacuous trophy bimbo on his arm. Jealous? Certainly. Nobody in their right mind would be anything other. But for the one thing that the guy who has everything didn’t have – my conscience – I’d have hightailed it to London long ago. But there you go, and here I am, dropping the bomb.
Can’t put my life on hold any longer for that arrogant dandy while he lets Rome burn. It’s time he took some responsibility for the life he’s lived. Developing golf courses at the expense of impoverished communities’ livelihood is a karmic cesspit, and leaving his family stranded while he lived the high life… He had it coming.
‘I’m going to be calling him later; we’ll talk about it then. Ma, there’s something you need to know – ‘ I clear my throat; she looks up, brow furrowed.
I step off the edge. The floor drops out from under me. And just like that, I’m gone.
‘Malcolm has…well, you’re a grandmother, Ma. Only Mal’s never told you.’
Eyes wide open, after so long. Colour flushes her face, she takes a deep breath. She’s elated, I can tell.
‘What are you telling me, Gary? What child? Who’s the mother? Not…not that Tarryn girl that you boys fought over?’ she demands. No longer trembling, no longer a frail woman with the voice of a child. Fire in the eyes once more.
‘Well, that’s the thing, Ma. It’s not Tarryn. That’s why he’s not told you. It’s Elsie.’
What do you do, then, what do you do? Keep the truth from a woman so frail, in the knowledge that the hearing of it may well push her over the edge? But then this is an issue larger than my mother’s failure to address her pet son’s philandering. This is the future of a child at stake, and in South Africa the odds are against a child whose father has forsaken him. His white father. What a stereotype. And because my dear brother has to know that he’s not invincible – this is his weak spot, his Achilles heel. His nemesis. It will out eventually, one way or another. I just couldn’t bear to see him keep them in misery.
‘Look, I don’t want to get into it, but he – Calvin – will be sixteen in a month. He lives with Elsie in Chesterville. He’s a good kid, Ma, and he looks like you. They’re family. Mal will explain when he gets back, I’m sure. But we’ve got to go, we’ve got to meet a potential buyer for the flat in twenty –’
‘Gary! You can’t be serious! Malcolm would never –’
‘Sorry, Ma. Gotta go.’
‘You didn’t cover your tracks well enough, you bastard’ I think as I walk out the door, Kirsty’s trembling hand in mine, ‘- and now you’re in my sights, dear brother. Pow. Gotcha.’
I take a deep breath and we walk out into the screwing heat of a Durban summer. We climb into the Beetle, and Kirsty slams home the tape. Fittingly, it’s the Stones. Mick’s singing ‘Like a newborn baby, it just happens every day…’